Guatemalan astronomy adventures!

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Linda and her father showing children how to use the Galileoscope

By Linda Strubbe

From December 18 – December 23, 2013, I visited the communities of Nuevo San José and Fátima, close to Santo Domingo, about an hour outside the city of Quetzaltenango (more commonly known as Xela in the Mayan language; Guatemala’s second largest city), in the Western Highlands region. I had visited these communities two years ago, for six weeks in October and November, 2011, when I took time off between finishing my PhD and starting my postdoc. (You can read the article I wrote about it two years ago here) This area is home to a Spanish language school called La Escuela de la Montaña, where I studied Spanish with an awesome teacher named Abby. Abby and I became good friends, and when she and her then-boyfriend Benjamin decided to get married this past December, she invited me and my family to come! I was excited to have such a great reason to go back to Guatemala and see my friends there again.

When I went in 2011, my two goals were to learn Spanish, and to make friends with people in the local communities and share astronomy with them. Like most of Guatemala, this area is very poor; many people here in the highlands work on coffee plantations, or in other types of agriculture, some in construction, and some travel to the cities to work in people’s homes. Almost everyone is a day laborer with nothing like job security. And many people have no employment at all. The families live in cement houses with several rooms, running (non-potable) water, and electricity. Many families have television sets and cell phones.

Every week that a foreign student (like me) studies at the language school, they eat three meals a day with one of the families from the communities. In that way, I got to know and make friends with quite a few different people during my visit in 2011. Two families I became especially close with were the families of Teresa, with her children Eric, Angelina, Melvin, Roxana, and Luis, and the family of Piedad, with her adult daughter Adelaida, and grand-daughters Evelyn and Liliana. You can see some of these friends in my photos from this visit: Luis is the boy with the Earth ball, Roxana is the girl in the Hollister sweatshirt (in one photo, holding her baby niece Daniela, Angelina’s daughter who was born shortly after my last visit), Teresa is the traditionally-dressed woman with her children and me, and Evelyn is in the selfie with me. During my previous visit, I brought my Galileoscope, astronomical stickers and pictures, an Earthball, and diffraction grating glasses. I set up my telescope in the middle of the community with some of the kids, and soon there were several dozen people coming out to look! We observed the Moon and Jupiter especially. We also played with the Earthball, and talked about where Guatemala is, and what the different colors on the globe mean. In 2012, I sent the communities solar observing glasses to watch the Transit of Venus in June! Although it turned out to be cloudy that day, they enjoyed trying out the glasses and sent me some photos.

This visit, I brought my Galileoscope again, and was so happy that the kids in the communities remembered it! They asked me if I had brought my telescope, and if we could look at the stars together. The skies were pretty clear, and we could observe Venus low in the west and Jupiter low in the east. Venus had a crescent shape, and the kids said it looked like the Moon! And we could see the moons of Jupiter too. It was awesome. My brother and my father (the man in one of the telescope photos) helped me out with talking to people about the sky and setting up the telescope. I think they really enjoyed it too!

In Guatemala (and other Latin American countries), they celebrate Las Posadas in the days leading up to Christmas, in which a procession travels between houses in the community each night, singing and carrying candles. When they arrive at the new house, some of the group goes inside and locks the door. The people outside sing, asking to be let in, and the people inside sing that there’s no room, like when Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to stay for the birth of Jesus. Eventually, the procession is let inside, and a homily follows with some prayers and hymns, and ends with a snack for everyone. The procession each night begins with some small fireworks, and we decided to set up the telescope nearby where people were congregating getting ready for the procession. It was really special to get to participate in Las Posadas, and bring some astronomy to the celebration as well!

Last visit, Luis loved playing with the Earthball, and loved finding Guatemala and showing it to other people. This visit, I brought the Earthball again, and gave it as a gift to Luis to keep. You can see him showing off his soccer skills in addition to finding Guatemala again. (And you can see which team he supports from his jersey…!) We gave his family glow-in-the-dark mini planets and solar observing glasses as well. We also brought planispheres and stickers (donated by the University of Toronto Astronomy Department) that the kids in the communities were given at the annual Christmas party.

Luis finding Guatemala on the Earthball

It was wonderful to share astronomy in the communities again, and I hope to be able to visit again soon. It’s difficult to stay in close contact with my friends there because they do not have computers or internet access; we can speak on the phone, but it’s quite expensive, and we can’t communicate with text messages because Teresa cannot read (or, not very well). The language school is working on a library for the communities, which already has some books and a space for children to study, and will hopefully soon have computers and internet access. I think that will help them learn more about the wider world, and hopefully help them to improve their education, and ultimately widen the scope of types of jobs they can work in. The education system in Guatemala is not in good shape; families need to pay for their children to attend school beyond primary, and most families don’t have the money, so their children drop out. If you’re interested in donating to a fund to support education in the communities, you can learn more about their programs here.

It was awesome to visit Guatemala again! Although we live far away from each other, and come from very different backgrounds, I think my old and new Guatemalan friends really felt the GalileoMobile spirit of standing Under the Same Sky, sharing astronomy together! Thanks for reading!

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